Africa Day: Imperial Tiger Orchestra, Ringo Madlingozi, NtombeThongo for City Hall Sessions

Imperial Tiger Orchestra plays Africa Day 2014 at the City Hall Sessions. Here’s my interview with Geneva-based / Ethiopian-influenced founder Raphael Anker, before their 2010 tour to the Pan African Space Station.

City Hall Sessions May 2014 featuring Imperial Tiger Orchestra and Ringo Madlingozi and Ntombe Thongo on Sunday 25 May 2014.

City Hall Sessions May 2014 featuring Imperial Tiger Orchestra and Ringo Madlingozi and Ntombe Thongo on Sunday 25 May 2014.

* Imperial Tiger Orchestra play Africa Day 2014 with Ringo Madlingozi and Ntombe Tongo at the Cape Town City Hall Sessions on Sunday 25 May 2014. Get tickets from WebTickets.co.za.

ARCHIVE 2010: The Geneva-based Imperial Tiger Orchestra brought the sound of the ‘Golden Age’ of Ethiopian jazz-funk to South Africa as part of the annual Pan African Space Station and a Southern African Tour. Here’s that interview:

The Imperial Tiger Orchestra is a band with origins as curious as its name. A Swiss trumpeter recruits a band of experimental and improvisational musicians to learn and perform songs from the “Golden Age” of Ethiopian music. Not only does the plan work, but the band goes on to local acclaim, to gigs across Europe and – a feather in the cap – to playing to great applause in Addis Ababa. Presented courtesy of Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council, and in Cape Town as part of the Pan African Space Station, the tour by this Geneva band is a rare chance for South Africans to hear the music from the African continent, along with contemporary interpretations. “Golden Age” (1969-1978) music, by masters such as Mahmoud Ahmed and Getatchew Mekurya, was usually sung, but the Imperial Tiger Orchestra is an instrumental group which “emphasizes the dark and hypnotic grooves of the rhythmn as well as the polished, ethereal brass themes”.

This interview originally appeared in the Cape Argus on 18 / 19 September 2010.

“It started when I was invited to play at a small club in Geneva, areally experimental place, and they gave me carte blanche – a white card to do whatever I wanted,” explains Raphael Anker (fans of extremely esoteric jazz might recognise him from Gekko, born from those sessions at Cave12). “I have listened to music from all over Africa for a long time, but at that moment I was thinking about this one mode, this one scale from Ethiopia which was quite dark. It was unusual for what people in Europe think about African music, the caricature of the music as always happy and always dancing. This music was dark, and even sad. I thought it might be a good combination to mix this scale with European music like rock and something experimental. But then we discovered more Ethiopian music – and it was not all as dark as this – and we changed the band to play that.”

Happily, the Imperial Tiger Orchestra earned a critical stamp of approval when they were invited to perform at the Ethiopian capital’s  Musiques Ethiopiennes festival last year by Francis Falceto, curator of the international anthology series “Ethiopiques”. “We were terrified,” he confesses about the Addis Ababa concerts. “But the people were quite happy. We were playing tunes that they have known from a long, long time. We are guys from Switzerland, but we are trying to be as honest as possible, and our primary goal is to respect the music. It is not about making a copy and paste of the music, but we like to play this music as simply as possible within the combination of our band, and to add something to it.”

Drawn out regarding the tension between hommage and modern improvisation, Anker explains: “Take reggae. There arImperial Tiger Orchestra: "Golden Age" Ethiopian jazz returns to Africae a lot of bands from Germany, from Italy and, surely, from South Africa, that are playing reggae music perfectly; maybe with something like a whole band from that country, and then a Jamaican singer. Something like this was not my goal, and I did not choose these musicians to do that. They would not do that; they are too crazy.”

Anker, whose father was born in Cameroon, studied at Geneva’s Conservatoire Populaire de Musique, obtaining his diploma in jazz and becoming a sought-after musician in the city. He played regularly with African singer Macyre Sylla, and bands as varied as PPA+, a funk Collective; Alex6, a drum ‘n bass project and the Nabila Schwab’s Balkan Music Trio. In the Imperial Tiger Orchestra, he plays alongside John Menoud (baritone saxophone), Alexandre Rodrigues (keyboards), Cyril Moulas (bass guitar and phin), Julien Israelian (drums) and Luc Détraz (percussion). Audiences can expect a repertoire of gems from the Ethio-jazz heyday, with “a powerful horn section, deadly percussion and relentless keyboards providing a merciless and efficient instrumental reinterpretation and improvisation based on original vocal songs… preserving the natural beauty of melodies and Ethiopian sound while exploring uncharted territory, playing with textures and dynamics, adding distortions and noise to complete beautiful pieces, the self-proclaimed counterfeiters embrace dark hypnotic rhythms, obsessive basslines and grooves from electronic music.”

For their Southern African tour, the band will be playing with an Ethiopian masenqo player. “I call what we are playing modern Ethiopian music. We are not Ethiopian; we do not have the same blood, so we have
to find our way of playing it. We get a good ’70s-sound, with vintage keyboards, and we try to add something fresh, and we leave space for improvisation, because all of the musicians come from that background. Now, in Africa, we will be playing for the first time with Endres Hassan, playing the traditional one-string violin, the masenqo. Also, he is Amsari, and is something like the griot in West Africa, so we will enjoy the chance to re-arrange the songs for this.”

Anker is particularly pleased to be part of the Pan African Space Station live series. “How did we get involved?” he says. “It is simple; Ntone (Edjabe, co-curator of the PASS festival, and founder of the “Chimurenga” journal) calls us, maybe even one year ago. We really wanted to come and, this year, it was a possibility, with Pro Helvetia helping to build a tour in other cities and countries also, around this invitation. That’s very good and very interesting because – not to say bullshit things – but it is a really important point of view to be spreading music from the continent to other places there. It is important for the people who listen, and for us, and for
the music. We are happy to be coming there, and happy to be part of something like this.”

Imperial Tiger Orchestra play Africa Day 2014 with Ringo Madlingozi and Ntombe Tongo at the Cape Town City Hall Sessions on Sunday 25 May 2014. Get tickets from WebTickets.co.za.

ARCHIVE 2010: Imperial Tiger Orchestra played the Pan African Space Station on 29 September 2010 (Slave Church, 40 Long St, 7 to 9.30pm) and Friday 1 October (Albert Hall, 208 Albert Rd, Woodstock, 10.30pm – 2.30am). Their tour then took in Johannesburg (4 and 8 October 2010) and “Poetry Africa” in Durban (9 October 2010), as well as Harare and Maputo. More on PanAfricanSpaceStation.org.za and

MySpace.com/ImperialTigerOrchestra.

This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus on 18 /19 September 2010. 

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One response to “Africa Day: Imperial Tiger Orchestra, Ringo Madlingozi, NtombeThongo for City Hall Sessions

  1. Pingback: Imperial Tiger Orchestra: “Golden Age” Ethiopian jazz returns to Africa | Evan Milton: Words on music (and miscellany)·

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